Ranunculaceae (buttercup family)
Hepatica takes its common and genus names from the supposed resemblance of its lobed leaves to the shape of the liver – in Latin, hepaticus means “liver.” As its important earlier uses include treatment for liver problems, that connection may also have influenced the choice of name. Earlier observers watched nature closely for useful healing medicines. Hepatica’s species name affirms that it is a native American plant, as is the sharp-lobed hepatica, H. acutiloba, whose species name literally means “sharp leaf,” from the Latin acus, “needle.” These two native species favour moist rich woodland soil and grow from Nova Scotia to Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, west to Missouri and Minnesota. Their diminutive daisy-like flowers with five to seven pastel petals range from lavender and blue to white or pink. The genus embraces about ten Northern Hemisphere species of small, hardy perennials. These ephemeral wildflowers are slightly downy (hairy) and bloom in early spring, after which their distinctive shiny green leaves dominate. They stand about four to eight inches tall.
Indians used hepatica leaf teas and decoctions to treat liver ailments, as a laxative, as a digestive aid, and to wash sore, swollen breasts. This mildly astringent botanical also served as a diuretic and a treatment for colds, coughs, and fevers and, for the Seneca, as a tonic. The Cherokee chewed the roots to relieve coughs and sore throat, and the Delaware used them as hunting charms. The Forest Potawatomi used the root and leaves in a sweet tea to relieve vertigo. For the Meskwaki, the root provided decoctions to drink to treat various ailments, and the Menomini combined the hepatica roots with the roots of maidenhair fern in decoctions to treat female disorders
During the late nineteenth century; hepatica leaves were consumed by the hundreds of thousands of pounds in various “liver tonics.” Numerous root decoctions were used as treatments for stomach aches and diarrhea and as laxatives.
Today herbalists use hepatica roots and leaves in some tonic preparations to treat liver and kidney problems. Hepatica also has virtue in treating indigestion, coughs, and fevers.
Growth needs and propagation:
Hepatica thrives in rich, well-drained soil in mostly shade or open shade. The plants may be easily propagated from seed or root divisions or purchased from plant nurseries.
The hepaticas grow well with other members of the buttercup family in the herb garden. They also keep good company with hellebore, maidenhair fern, ginseng, goldthread, and goldenseal.
[Sharp-lobed hepatica] prevents conception. Steep 3 plants in three quarts of water for a strong dose. Drink the quantity as soon as possible.
– David Jack, Cayuga herbalist, Six Nations Reserve, 1912